When I planned my trip to Vietnam, my itinerary was centered around the Ha Giang Loop. This is what it looked like:
- Ha Giang Loop (Dates: TBD)
I’m not kidding. My lack of an itinerary was half on purpose, I wanted to improvise during my 20 days in Vietnam, and half being too busy to properly plan the trip.
Headed into Vietnam I knew one thing for sure, I was going to motorcycle the shit out of the Ha Giang Loop.
I try to avoid having expectations of anybody or anything because it’s a recipe for disappointment., yet I couldn’t avoid getting my hopes up for the Ha Giang loop. I did too much research and spoke to too many fellow travelers who hyped it up to the point that I was positive I was going to be let down.
After landing in Hanoi my excitement waned a little bit. Hanoi is pretty underwhelming. Don’t spend more than 2 days there unless you really love Banh Mis or smoking joints with shitty weed at dive bars. There ain’t a whole lot to do.
My expectations were tempered a bit as I left for the loop. But guys, this loop, this fucking loop, was everything I imagined and more.
The endless majestic views and adrenaline-fueled motorcycle riding provides a perfect mix of relaxation and adventure. One minute you’re looking out over a breathtaking landscape, the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, and the next you’re narrowly avoiding being knocked off the mountain by a truck flying around a blind corner. Its unpredictable, its exciting, its the best thing you can do in Vietnam.
Out of all the things I did in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, this was by far my favorite. If you’re traveling through Asia this is a must do. Don’t fuck around in Hanoi, skip Ha Long Bay and Sapa, get up to Ha Giang and thank me later.
How to Get There
You have to start your journey in Hanoi. It’s the main city in North Vietnam and the jumping-off point for all the adventures in the northern part of the country.
Once you get to Hanoi, book a sleeper bus from your hostel to Ha Giang. It will cost you around $5-10 and it takes about 6 hours. The bus drops you off right next to all the hostels.
You should get some Vietnamese valium from the local pharmacy because those busses are NOT comfortable and the journey takes a while. Also, the bus drivers act like they’re in a Mario Kart time trial and go much faster than they should.
And no matter what you do, AVOID THE TOP BUNKS. I made that mistake and ended up flying off in the middle of the night. Waking up in mid-air and landing face-first as a Vietnamese mother and daughter laugh at you is not something you want to experience.
This is the back. Don’t end up here.
The bus organizers will try to get you to sit in the very back and insist that it’s the “best seat”. The back is by far the worst spot of the bus and you’ll be stacked on top of 5-6 other Vietnamese people. Climb into a bed and when the bus driver protests, ignore him. He’ll eventually leave you alone.
Where to Stay
The First Friend Dinner at Jasmine
I strongly recommend you stay at the Jasmine Hostel.
You stay in the hostel for one night and everybody staying in the hostel that night leaves the next morning as one big happy family and does the 3-4 day trek together.
You can rent all of your gear from them (motorbike, helmet, poncho) and they provide a local guide who not only navigates you through the loop but stops at the best photo spots and other dope excursions including hikes, caves, and temples. You can keep your backpack at the hostel and they have lockers if you want to protect your passport/laptop etc.
If you want a true adventure, going solo would be your best bet. Just make sure you download a Google Map of the place before going for when the service drops out. Service is pretty solid even though there’s not a cell tower in sight. I have no idea how.
Homestay in Dong Van
Even if you’re traveling solo, I would still stay at Jasmine because it’s cheap and it’s located 5 minutes from where the sleeper bus drops you off. Plus it’s nice to make some friends and get some WhatsApp numbers in case you blow a tire or can’t find a homestay.
Homestays along the way are all taken care of by the Jasmine Hostel guide and range from OK to pretty nice. All of them have private rooms available. There are also hotels in most towns that you can stay at if you’re a posh bitch and think you’re too good for homestays. I think it would be a waste, I was so exhausted after every day that I could’ve slept in the middle of a mosh pit.
If you’re traveling alone you can find homestays in the towns of Yen Minh, Dong Van, and Du Gia. No need to meticulously plan the route or reserve your spot, remember this is in the middle of nowhere, just pull up at the nearest homestay you can find and I guarantee they’ll have room. If you can’t find one, ask the locals.
What to Bring
Pack light. Everything you have will be strapped to the back of your motorbike. Here’s what I brought.
- Day Bag – I used this Osprey ultralight and was able to fit everything – if you need a small/light/easy to pack day bag buy this one.
- 3 days worth of clothes
- 3-4 pairs of shorts
- Bathing suit
- 3-4 shirts
- 4 pairs underwear
- As many socks as you can carry (they will get soaked)
- Rain jacket (if you have one)
- Rain poncho
- Headphones that you can fit inside a helmet
- Cigarettes (if you smoke)
- Phone charger
- Dry Bag
- Tennis Shoes (for hiking)
- Flip Flops
You can do laundry at the homestays so don’t worry about running out of clean clothes.
Be Prepared for a Chaffed Asshole
Me reminiscing on the days when my butthole was less irratible
There are no guarantees in life. But there is one guarantee on the Ha Giang Loop: Your asshole will be rawer than sushi. Moped/motorcycle seats are not meant for long-distance travel. The Ha Giang Loop will have you driving at least 150 km every day (5-8 hours of straight) in humid ass, swampy conditions.
Your butthole will be uncomfortable, just deal with it. Make sure you take plenty of pit stops to let it breathe. I recommend pulling your cheeks apart as you face the wind and getting a fresh breeze of mountain air straight in the turd cutter. It’s highly refreshing.
Another thing, it rains A LOT up in the mountains of Ha Giang. You will get wet even if you wear your poncho. Embrace it.
I’m not trying to scare you. Riding in the group is very safe and they move pretty slow. But don’t get lulled into a false sense of security. Make sure you pay attention and drink caffeine so you keep paying attention.
There are potholes big enough to swallow you and your bike and a disturbing lack of guardrails on some of the cliffs.
Be prepared for little to no clearance when cars/trucks pass you. You’ll have to nuzzle up to the cliff face in order to get past some of them which is kind of scary at first but becomes routine towards the end.
Most importantly DON’T PANIC, that’s when you do dumb shit and half of your body ends up looking like one big scab.
Take Your Time
This is your trip, do it your way. Even if you go with a group from Jasmine Hostel, you don’t have to stay with them the whole time. See something cool? Just stop on the side of the road and admire it. It’s not difficult to catch up with the group since there’s no traffic on the loop. You can dick around for 30 mins and still catch up pretty easily.
Day One: OH MY GOD
Route: Ha Giang to Yen Minh
We all wake up on day 1 at jasmine Hostel and go to our morning briefing where the guides reiterate how dangerous the loop is, lay down some ground rules, and show us how to navigate the loop in the event we got lost.
You then choose a helmet from a disgusting set of rental helmets that smell like a moldy locker room and get ready to head out.
The guides also pack all of your stuff up neatly on the back of your bike for you which is very helpful.
We head off to grab a lot of cash for the homestays (not a lot of ATMs out in the country) and quickly get accustomed to the batshit insanity that comes with driving in Vietnam.
The day starts off fairly tame as we slowly started to climb up this massive mountain. It’s immediately clear that, yes, this place is as beautiful as people said it was.
We stopped to get coffee at an awesome cliffside establishment that offers views of Heaven’s Gate. They also have these coffee cups where you can put a candle underneath to keep the cup warm. I’ve never seen such ingenuity.
It’s looking like rain all day but God doesn’t start pissing on us until we get to our first destination.
Lung Khuy Cave
The cave is really touristy but also really cool. Make sure you squeeze down through the last tunnel to see the underground lake.
The hike up to the cave is also fucking GORGEOUS.
The only downside is the hike doesn’t have any rain cover. And it rained, a lot, when we walked back.
Bac Sum Pass
We stopped for lunch right after this and Adam challenged a local to a chugging contest. Enjoy.
The afternoon was a rain affair but the cloudiness made most of the valleys much more colorful.
Happy Juice at the Homestay
One of the traditions for tourists is to try homemade wine the locals call “Happy juice”. The stuff is sneaky strong and the best way I can describe it is malt liquor sake.
We proceed to get pretty lit and start playing some drinking games. Eventually, the locals start doing karaoke so of course I join and confuse the hell out of them with some rap music. Me and my new British mate Adam did a duet of Tenacious D’s “Tribute” which was well-received by the white people but caused the hostel mom to turn off the karaoke machine.
Anyway, taking shots of happy juice is a fun bonding experience. We tried staying up late but we’re in this country neighborhood where it’s dead quiet in the middle of the night and every time we had a conversation it felt like we were disturbing everybody.
We call it a night and go to sleep because attempting to motorbike down rain-soaked mountains on collapsing roads whilst hungover seemed like certain death.
Day Two: This is why they call it ‘Rainy Season’
Route: Yen Minh to Dong Van
There are pros and cons to visiting Asia in the summer.
- Less crowded tourist attractions
- More freedom choosing hostels and activities
- You can pack lighter
- It’s 105 degrees with 100% humidity
- It rains harder than you can imagine at least once per day
I wake up early on day 2 because hostel beds aren’t comfortable and my body desperately wanted nicotine. As I go downstairs and spark up a cigarette, a torrential downpour dumps on my head. The raindrops sounded like they were the size of softballs and the sound of the water pelting the roof is so loud that I can’t hear myself think.
Our rain ponchos weren’t going to be enough today. Our usually upbeat group is uncharacteristically quiet during breakfast as we’re all dreading trying to navigate the loop in this rain. In addition to dealing with the highly-dangerous roads and psychotic drivers, we now need to do it soaking wet with 0 visibility.
I could barely see out of my helmet to begin with. The plexiglass visor was scratched to oblivion from the misfortune of several riders before me. I zoned out and started to wonder if anybody had died in that helmet.
This morning was the first time I had been anxious about riding. The thought of being on that road for 6 hours in that horrendous weather drained all of the giddy excitement out of my body and replaced it with anxiety.
Our guide had gotten hammered on happy juice the night before and was MIA for the start of the day. This was OK, if we had left when we were planning to (8:00 AM) we would’ve been soaked in 35 seconds. Right as our guide showed up, the weather switched from terrible to wonderful like a light switch.
We set off to Dong Van, which is a town and also the Asian version of the “Bang Bus”.
Tham Ma Pass
The Tham Ma Pass is one of many views like this but by far the most photogenic. The lookout area has street carts where you can get food and drinks and is full of Ha Giang visitors and locals. I could’ve spent 2 hours looking at this view.
This was the only time I was grateful for rain during our trip. The rolling clouds added to the ambiance and the mist made the sunset colors much more vibrant. Go here for sunset if you can.
Hmong Royal Palace
You should skip this stop. It’s a pretty awful lunch spot, the street food was some of the worst I’ve seen in Vietnam, and the Vuong Royal Palace is underwhelming to say the least.
According to Wikipedia, this place cost 15,000 silver coins (equivalent to VND150 billion or $6.5 million at that time) to build back in the day. After being there it’s clear they really got ripped off.
It’s a tiny palace made for tiny people with no artifacts or exhibits. It’s a big empty room and without a tour guide, it’s a boring place.
We also had to share our tour with a Vietnamese army battalion who took up most of the room. Just a shit experience overall.
Skip it entirely unless you need lunch and hate good food.
Lung Cu Flag Tower – The Vietnam/China Border
Have you ever wanted to sneak into China? This is your chance! If the guard isn’t on the path near the monument, you can run into China and run back.
It’s a goofy, fun experience unless you’re caught, then it will become a never-ending nightmare as you’re shipped to the Uyghur Muslim Re-education Camps and tortured in unspeakable ways.
We Almost Lose Two People
Halfway through day 2 as we came around a corner, I saw the two young guns in our group, who weren’t the most experienced riders, shoot by me at a speed I would describe as “reckless”. As I was thinking “man they’re really going for it” I see the driver get the deadly speed wobbles and start careening out of control.
The handlebars cut sharply to the right and the driver slams face-first into the guardrail. His passenger on the back goes flying into the middle of the road and we all come to a screeching halt.
The driver gets up, slightly concussed, face bloody with a chipped front tooth, wondering what the hell just happened. We stop and tend to him, unsure of what to do since there doesn’t seem to be a hospital for hundreds of miles.
The guides look nonplussed as they’ve probably seen this 100 times before. They load up the two hurt young guys on to mopeds and head to whatever they call a hospital in Ha Giang, Vietnam, I have to imagine that most of the injuries they see are from overconfident white people who misjudge sharp corners on their motorbikes.
In the end they were both fine. The driver looks a little goofier now but he has a cool story to tell.
Day Three: Back to Reality WHOOP THERE GOES GRAVITY
Route: Dong Van to Du Gia to Ha Giang
To do 4 days or keep it at 3? “Easy decision” I thought “this was the entire reason I came to Vietnam.”
But then the real world slapped me in the mouth. I finally checked my emails that I had been actively avoiding and quickly realized that, yes, I still had obligations and, no, my clients were not happy with me disappearing for 3 days.
Fuck. I made a last-second audible and decided this would be my last day. t had all of the things I wanted to do anyway, the only thing I was missing on day 4 was swimming at a waterfall. After living in Hawaii and traveling through Thailand I’ve had enough waterfall experiences to last me 2 lifetimes.
I decided to head back and make the most of the last day. Hopefully the weather holds up.
The weather did not hold up. This was supposedly the best view of the entire trip. This is what I saw:
Wow, such grey
Eat a dick, nature. I climbed up to the top of these slippery ass rocks and waited for the clouds to pass but nope. It just kept raining harder and harder.We didn’t bring umbrellas or ponchos because it looked clear when we started the hike. The clouds moved in at 100 MPH and soaked us to the bone. We went to a random local’s house and sat on tiny chairs, waiting for the rain to end.
5 minutes after we left the sun was back out and things were perfect the rest of the day. Seriously, fuck you nature.
Ma Pi Leng Pass
By far the best sight on day 3. The river valley goes on for what seems like forever and offers incredible views for a solid 2 hours of driving.
A random ass village we passed. They can’t all be incredible.
One of our group popped a tire on the way. Just as I was trying to figure out if Vietnam had AAA, our guide told us to follow him and took the bike straight to this random person’s house. They had an extra tire and everything. I wish people were this helpful in America.
Does everybody just have tires available? I don’t understand how things work in Vietnam but I can’t argue with their system. It’s the same with the entire country ignoring stoplights. At first, I thought I would see horrific crashes at every intersection but it turns out you don’t need 4,000 traffic laws for people to know what safe driving is. Everybody polices themselves and takes care of each other.
The end of the day was absolutely grueling. Shortening the trip by a day meant we had to cover 200 km in 7 hours. Even with minimal stops, it took forever. For the first time, I had some fatigue and was ready for the Ha Giang Loop to be over.
When we finally got back there was a MASSIVE group arriving for the loop tomorrow. All I wanted to do was take a shower but ended up waiting 20 minutes and stepping over people to pack my shit. Not the best ending but who cares? Me and the gang bought our 8 PM bus tickets, ate quickly and headed to Hoi An.
Ha Giang Loop: When You’re Here, You’re Family
You can easily do the Ha Giang Loop alone, it’s only a road after all. I talked to plenty of guys who were doing it solo and loved it. A part of me still wishes I had embarked alone.
But then I think about my Ha Giang family and how close we got during that trip. Driving the loop is as stressful as it is beautiful. You’re enjoying yourself one minute and trying to survive the next. Something about that adrenaline brought us all closer together. LIke we survived the loop instead of vacationing on it.
We never said it, but we all felt somewhat responsible for each other. If somebody crashed or stopped or their bike wouldn’t work, we’d help them keep moving. Except for that one time we abandoned Adam when he blew his tire. Sorry about that, Adam, real dick move on our part.
I may like traveling alone but I hate being alone while traveling. I’ve made friends in hostels and at other excursions but nothing like this. We rode, ate, drank, and slept together until we had no choice but to become family.
Our mix of people couldn’t be more diverse. Older people, college grads, college students, and about 7 countries represented. We would have never hung out unless we were on this trip together and yet we all blended together seamlessly.
I could have done the loop solo but why? To “find myself”? Spiritual awakening? Soul searching is tough when there’s an engine roaring in your ears and you’re preoccupied with staying alive. Plus I already made it out here and threw away everything I own, I know who the fuck I am at this point.
The camaraderie was part of the journey. It wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable alone.
So stop reading and get out there. You’ll have the time of your life.
My last piece of advice: stay at Jasmine Hostel and do the Ha Giang Loop with a group. You’ll leave as strangers and return as family.